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West Bengal has resoundingly rejected polarising alternative offered by BJP; strong regional leaders will shape pushback to Centre. But for now, task is to fight virus, save lives.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP’s failure to win in West Bengal deepens an already sobering moment. As the government he leads at the Centre struggles to meet the challenge of an unprecedented public health emergency, its fumbles and abdications, and the dreadful toll they are taking, are rendered all too visible. What was also conspicuous was that even as the second Covid wave rose and rose, the Prime Minister personally took ownership of the BJP’s Bengal poll charge — a campaign bolstered by the immense resources at the command of the Centre’s ruling party, a supporting cast of senior party leaders and ministers, and a poll monitor which seemed to be taking cues not from the special challenge of conducting an important election amid a pandemic, but from the powers-that-be.

It has been evident for some time now that the BJP underperforms in the states in comparison to its firm hold on the Centre. This has been driven home, starting with the election the BJP strikingly lost to the JD(U)-RJD Mahagathbandhan in Bihar 2015. It has been argued that PM Modi is more popular than his party and that the BJP’s lesser performance in the states points to the weakness of its state leadership, or to the arithmetic rigged up by its political opponents. There is truth in that analysis. Yet the West Bengal verdict cannot be entirely explained by an argument that insulates the PM’s considerable popularity and appeal from the BJP’s assembly failures and incapacities.

Because in Bengal, much more than in other BJP campaigns in states, the might of the PM’s impressive political capital was brought into play. In Bengal, the PM taunted the CM directly: “Didi o Didi”. Sure, given that it had started with a paltry three seats in the outgoing assembly, the BJP has still covered a long distance. It has shifted the centre of Bengal’s politics to the right, made the contest bipolar. Having said that, however, its spectacular failure to match up to its special hype makes West Bengal, today, the state that was wooed by the PM and that said no.

MAMATA BANERJEE’s landslide win against the tremendous odds stacked against her — she has lost in Nandigram, but she was the face of the TMC in practically every seat — is a testament to her prowess as a politician, her unputdownable resilience. At the end of two terms in power, she was faced with anti-incumbency. Reports from the ground captured the accumulated resentments among the people over the corruptions and thuggeries of TMC cadres, many of whom had earlier crossed over from the Left and the Congress, and some of whom, on this election eve, migrated to the BJP.

Yet, Banerjee’s emphatic victory shows that, when it came to a choice between a flawed incumbent and a polarising political alternative, the voters of Bengal chose the former. That poriborton is not a slogan to be appropriated, but earned. It also underlines that anti-incumbency is no infallible law of political nature. In fact, Pinarayi Vijayan’s return to power in a state that has traditionally seen an alternation underlines the firming up of a relatively recent phenomenon, after the collapse of the Congress system and the onset of multi-party competition: Pro-incumbency.

THAT the TMC win in Bengal was helped by the Congress-Left collapse in the state could point to a rearranging of the format of national-level political competition: On the other side of the battlelines from the Modi-BJP, will be the regional parties. The might of the BJP could now be taken on by a sum of the states. After all, regional players share the victory podium with the BJP in this round — the BJP has won Assam, Banerjee has triumphed in Bengal, Vijayan has led a Left that looks more like a Kerala party to a second successive term, and the Stalin-led DMK has come to power in Tamil Nadu.

While Banerjee’s win is notched directly against the BJP, the victories of Vijayan, cast as an anti-Modi figure, and even Stalin, are likely to shore up the claims of the regional players to offer an alternative to the Modi-BJP nationally — given the Congress’s evident unwillingness and inability.

Reports of the demise of the Congress no longer seem exaggerated. It was in the reckoning against the incumbent BJP in Assam, the other pole in the bipolar contest with the Left in Kerala, and it had a government in Puducherry. It has lost all three, and in addition, been decimated in Bengal, where its alliance with the Left and the newly formed Indian Secular Front was overlooked by the voters comprehensively.

But if the Congress is the older player, wilfully paralysed by its own infirmities, the AIADMK’s creditable showing in Tamil Nadu has announced a transition to the new and, hopefully, a democratic deepening. The AIADMK’s creditable showing under the leadership of Edappadi K Palaniswami points to the passing of the baton not just in the AIADMK after it lost its supremo Jayalalithaa, but also to a politics less beholden to the charismatic personality.

IN 2015, after the famous Mahagathbandhan victory against the BJP in Bihar seemed to arrest the BJP’s juggernaut, the Opposition lost little time in frittering away the political possibilities it had opened up. The victories of regional players now may not have an enduring effect either. Whether they do or not, however, is a question for the future. For now, those who have won have no time to waste even for savouring victory.

For the new governments in Assam, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry, the immediate challenge is to fight Covid. They must use all their political capital, rally all their resources to win. The battle has been won, a larger and longer battle lies ahead.

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